Federal Water Tap, April 10: EPA Science Board Reviews ‘Value of a Statistical Life’ Calculation

The Rundown

EPA science advisers weigh in on proposed changes to the value of preventing a single death within a large group. The Department of Homeland Security issues an intelligence report on a cyberattack against a U.S. water utility. The U.S. Geological Survey publishes the first national assessment of brackish groundwater in more than a half century and releases an interactive map that shows water pollution trends over 40 years. The Supreme Court denies a government petition to delay a Clean Water Act jurisdiction case. The EPA inspector general begins investigating Atlanta’s sewer operations. Dozens of representatives from both parties urge colleagues not to cut funding for rural water or major water bodies such as the Great Lakes and Puget Sound. The Congressional Black Caucus convenes a forum on the threat of famine in Africa. And lastly, the Energy Department holds a hydropower summit.

“It’s important to have a number. We need the number to determine how stringent to make regulations and to assess costs and benefits. The number is based on economic thinking and how individuals make decisions and trade off risks to life. It’s founded on solid principles, and not sucked out of thin air.” — Madhu Khanna, a University of Illinois professor of environmental economics, speaking to Circle of Blue about the dollar figure the EPA assigns to the value of reducing a single death. Khanna is the chair of an EPA science panel that reviewed the agency’s methods for revising the “value of a statistical life.”

By the Numbers

62: Members of the House of Representatives, both Republicans and Democrats, who wrote a letter urging colleagues that control the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget not to eliminate funding to rural water systems, as President Trump proposed. (Rep. John Katko and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa)

31: Members of the House of Representatives, both Republicans and Democrats, who asked the president not to cut funding for major waterbodies: Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, Long Island Sound, and others. (Rep. Derek Kilmer)

$US 9.7 million: The EPA’s current “value of a statistical life” – a figure used in analyzing the costs and benefits of regulation. The agency is considering revising the number upward. See below for more details. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

News Briefs

Water Utility Cyberattack Rings Up Hefty Data Charges
Hackers that stormed the digital defenses of an American water authority and took control of its cellular routers late last year were not interested in disrupting water supply and wastewater treatment. Instead they were intent on stealing valuable internet service, and lots of it, according to a Department of Homeland Security intelligence briefing.

As the hackers took command and used the routers for other purposes, the authority’s cellular data bill soared — from an average of $US 300 a month to $US 45,000 in December and $US 53,000 in January. Details of the government’s report on the incident were described to Circle of Blue by experts who read the briefing.

Read more from Circle of Blue about the attack and what it means for water utility cybersecurity.

Scrutiny for Atlanta’s Multibillion-Dollar Sewer Overhaul
The EPA inspector general will investigate whether Atlanta is complying with a 1998 consent decree that forced the city to spend billions of dollars to reduce sewer overflows.

A member of Congress asked for the review. Who? The inspector general’s office does not disclose the names of requesters, according to Jeff Lagda, a spokesman. Similarly, Lagda would not say what provoked the representative’s concern.

Supreme Court Denies Government’s Attempt to Delay WOTUS Ruling
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering this question: which federal court should hear a challenge to the EPA’s rule about which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act, the so-called Waters of the United States rule?

Because the Trump administration is moving to revoke the rule, federal lawyers asked the high court to delay the case. The justices disagreed. They denied the government’s petition.

Reed Hopper, a lawyer representing farm interests in the case, says that even though the EPA will be issuing a new rule, all parties need to know which court — district or appeals — has jurisdiction, for the lawsuits that will inevitably follow. “That remains an open question and there is no reason why the Supreme Court should delay answering that question,” he wrote in a blog post.

The Supreme Court is due to rule by June 2018.

Dakota Access Letter
Two leading Senate Democrats — Maria Cantwell of Washington and Tom Carper of Delaware — sent a letter to Army Corps officials that asks about oversight of the Dakota Access pipeline. They also requested an update and documents related to an environmental review that was initiated during the Obama administration.

Africa Drought and Famine Forum
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus held a forum on drought and the threat of famine in Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan.

Studies and Reports

EPA Is Revising an Important Number
How strict should drinking water regulations be? Should a power plant install particulate filters? To analyze questions of the costs and benefits of pollution-reducing regulations, the EPA uses a figure known as the “value of a statistical life.” In essence, the figure refers to the money that society is willing to pay, on average, to reduce one death in a group of thousands of people. It is the aggregation of individual preferences. For example, if a group is willing to pay an average of $US 100 per person to reduce the risk of death by one in 100,000, then in this case the value of a statistical life is $US 10 million.

It’s a consequential number. For drinking water standards, fewer deaths accounts for roughly 80 percent of the benefits of regulation, according to the EPA. In other words, the higher the value of a statistical life, the better the argument for tightening pollution rules.

EPA’s current valuation is based on a number that was derived in 1992 and is adjusted for inflation and changes in income. In February 2016, the EPA published a report that outlined a new strategy for calculating the value, which stands today at $US 9.7 million.

An independent science review committee weighed in recently with comments on the agency’s approach. The main challenge, according to Madhu Khanna, the committee chair, is to produce a single national number from studies that analyze different demographic groups and ages: children and adults, men and women, workers and retirees.

On another question, the board thought there is too little data to support assigning a higher value to reducing deaths from certain diseases — the so-called “cancer premium.”

USGS Brackish Groundwater Report
Slightly salty groundwater supplies are most prevalent in a band of territory that bisects the continent, from the Dakotas to Louisiana and Texas, according to the first national assessment of brackish groundwater in more than a half century.

Roughly three to 30 times less salty than the ocean, brackish groundwater has attracted interest in recent years as a new source of water. Once the salt is removed, of course. The U.S. Geological Survey evaluated the availability of these supplies down to 3,000 feet. Every state has brackish groundwater except for New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

The report is a starting point for more detailed local analyses, according to Jennifer Stanton, the lead hydrologist.

A couple key graphics from the report: minimum depth to brackish groundwater, which shows how far below ground brackish supplies begin, and dissolved solids concentrations at four depths. Basically, the deeper you go, the saltier the water gets.

National Water Quality Trends Map
The U.S. Geological Survey, always busy, published an interactive online map of water quality trends between 1972 and 2012. The data cover nutrients, pesticides, salinity, sediment, and other parameters.

Identifying trends, however, is not so easy. The research report that accompanies the data notes that drawing a signal from the noise means identifying the influence of annual fluctuation in river flows versus the influence of changes in land use or other human activities.

Flood Insurance Environmental Review
The Federal Emergency Management Agency published a draft environmental review of legislative changes to the federal government’s flood insurance program. The laws would phase out subsidies for flood-prone properties.

Public comments are being accepted through June 6.

On the Radar

Hydropower Summit
The Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office will hold a summit to connect hydropower companies to federal research laboratories. The goal of the meeting is to align federal research and develop activities with industry needs in order to increase hydropower generation and reliability. The summit, open to the public, is May 4 in Washington, D.C.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.